The late, indefatigable Ray Johnson (1927–95) has rarely looked as charming and witty as he did in this action-packed show of collages, letters, ephemera, and the odd sculpture, along with artworks by compatriots ranging from Andy Warhol to John Baldessari, which placed the mail-art master in the context in which he flourished.
A Coca-Cola bottle glides into the mouth of a Benday-dotted James Dean as Jasper Johns looks on in one Johnson collage; in another, the artist swapped the heads of Yoko Ono (in her 1965 Cut Piece) and the Mona Lisa. The tops of black leather shoes in a vitrine are labeled “JOHN” and “CAGE.” A little photocopied drawing from 1983 offers up a cartoon portrait of Andy Warhol for each year of his life, the main difference between each being the length of his hair. (In a transcript of a conversation between Johnson and Warhol, in which they are prepping for an Interview magazine interview, Warhol proposes they sit silent.)
The playful, good-natured humor just kept coming. No, Johnson never produced what one would call a masterpiece. That wasn’t what he was after. Through his humble, intimate collages, he assembled, piece by piece, over decades, a multilayered portrait of his scene, at once rich, irreverent, and, as the participants in that milieu pass on, increasingly moving.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 78.